Man Can't Climb Any Higher and Men Never Came Any Tougher
The snags of dead foxtail pines stood between large boulders, the grain of their trunks dramatically spiraling round and round from base to tip. They looked as twisted and contorted as a dish rag wrung dry. All that was left of one snag was a stump, the rest of the tree had long since fallen, leaving what looked like a twisting cyclone of wood rising up from the ground. The trunk shot up like a helix, its spirals of wood ending in thin and jagged fingers, tendrils reaching up towards the sky. They appeared as if they had been frozen in mid-formation as they corkscrewed up from the earth on their way to forming a tree - more a tree being birthed than the remains of one long since dead.
We took a break at the top of a climb before continuing on to Crabtree Meadows and three other hikers soon arrived. One woman introduced herself as Rocket Llama and I recognized her as a thru-hiker who had been stranded by an early snowstorm in Oregon the previous year. It had ended her hike, but yet there she was on her second attempt. I was amazed by all of the hikers I had met who were unwilling to give up on their dreams of thru-hiking. A second hiker named Banana Boat, an elfin woman who seemed to possess boundless energy, could hardly stand still as the rest of us caught our breath at the pass. She scampered about, jumping off rocks and yelling out, "Wheee! I'm doing parkour!"
We entered Crabtree Meadows with its green grass and snaking creek, Mt. Russell looming above like a granite castle carved from the surrounding ridge. A deer stood far out in the meadow. We ate dinner next to a broad expanse of green, that if not for the rocks strewn about could have easily passed for a golf course. Banana Boat sat next to me shoveling instant mashed potatoes into her mouth with a large stick. "I always lose my spoon!" she explained cheerfully.
The Sierras spread out for miles to our left, gradually descending towards the Pacific Ocean. To our right they dropped off dramatically, careening down to the arid lowlands lying east of the crest. Nothing would illustrate this geology better than our experience over the next twelve hours. We had turned off the PCT to tackle the popular side trail ascending Mt.Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous United States. I had planned to begin my hike at dawn, but Hockey suggested we start hiking around 1 am to see the sun rise from the summit. It was an enticing plan and we made our way to Guitar Lake to sleep for a few hours before beginning the climb.
The setting sun cast unbelievably dramatic shadows across the surrounding mountains. One ridge would cast its shadow upon an adjacent one, dividing it into night and day, like the light side of the moon and the dark. The sunlight slowly changed to golden hues of yellow, orange and peach. Ridge tops burned as if they were on fire and were reflected in small streams that in turn flowed like molten glass through the meadows. We eventually reached Guitar Lake and lay our sleeping bags out under the stars. Darkness covered the landscape and I lay on my back watching thin pricks of light in the inky backdrop, their movement barely perceptible as they inched along the trail far above us - the head lamps of hikers making their way up Whitney.
"This is the highest point in all our land - mighty Mt. Whitney. Looming above the wilderness with the strange silence of eternity. Yet stranger still is the mission of destiny that brings men to this forbidding barrier. He's trapped because man can't climb any higher and men never came any tougher. But what brought him here? What made him that way?"
Narration from the trailer for the film High Sierra, 1941
After only a few hours of sleep we roused ourselves and packed up in the pitch black. Hockey was off long before me and when I finally started up the trail Banana Boat had awoken and was no less chipper and energetic than the previous day. She hiked incredibly fast and had soon passed me by. Each time she lost her footing in the dark she let out a high-pitched "Oop!" They were aural bread crumbs for me to follow in the dark, as the trail appeared and vanished, nearly impossible to ascertain amidst the rocks and boulders. She took a break and I caught up to her.
"Wow, its pretty damn cold." I complained.
"Hmm ... no, not really," she countered. "I just changed the batteries in my head lamp and I'm super excited! Yay, night hiking!"
Feeling cold and miserable, I began to despise her boundless enthusiasm and positivity.
As we climbed, the temperature had plummeted into the low twenties. I put on every piece of clothing I possessed. The wind seemed to blow without end. Were it not for my head lamp I could not have seen my hand in front of my face. I felt far out of my comfort zone, imagining my light suddenly going out and becoming engulfed by the darkness. My nose dripped continually; gusts of wind picked up the snot and carried it through the air. What didn't blow off into the wind dripped down onto my lips and they became raw and chapped. The world was reduced to the small circle of light emitting from my head lamp. I could see only the snow at my feet and beyond that everything disappeared into a black void. I would at times lose my momentum, then in turn my balance, and I would nearly topple over. I felt exposed and vulnerable and I wanted nothing more than for the climb to end. All I could think about was reaching the shelter at the summit, entering and closing the door - shutting out all of the wind and cold and darkness of night.
I sensed that I was making my way up a broad and open summit and eventually saw the silhouette of the shelter ahead. I climbed the last few feet towards the building and flung the door open only to find four hikers, with all their gear, packed into the tiny space. The building was fairly large but apparently only a small portion of it could be accessed. I slumped down against the frigid stone wall, wedged between two other hikers. We all just sat there mostly in silence. Banana Boat was snuggled up next to another hiker, a sleeping bag draped over them. For all I knew they had just met; I couldn't blame her for her resourcefulness. Two day-hikers were there as well, having come up from the east completely unprepared. With no head lamps they had been stranded, realizing they could not descend before nightfall.
Time passed and I soon saw the subtle glow of morning light through the tiny window above us. I exited the shelter to see if the sun had risen above the surrounding peaks. It had not and I could barely endure the cold and wind before hurrying back inside. Hockey, who I had passed during the ascent, arrived and we stood in the shelter with a sleeping bag covering us, huddling for warmth. A hiker named Micah arrived and gave me a huge hug, though we had never met.
Finally, we were able to watch the sun rise from 14,496 feet. Across the landscape before us only the tallest peaks and ridges glinted in the morning light. The rest of the landscape remained in darkness, shadowed by the giant escarpment of the eastern Sierras. Frozen lakes sat lonely in high basins. Sunlight slowly spilled across the summit and the roof of the shelter. The rocks seemed to glow with warmth, though the air was still as frigid as it had been in the dead of night. It was amazing, the sense of calm and comfort that washed over me as a result of the shining sun. It was as if I had somehow doubted the sun would ever rise and felt utterly relieved that something as certain as the break of day had actually occurred.
We stood around and stared dumbfounded at the sea of peaks surrounding us until there was nothing else to do but head back down. In the daylight I could see everything I had hiked past in darkness only a few hours prior. Giant spires of rock rose up to my left and then careened straight down. They seemed to be one edge of a massive fissure that had formed in the earth, as if the mountains had cracked and split and the other edge lay thousands of feet below. There were gaps between those large spires, like windows out onto the eastern horizon and the desert far below. When I had first hiked past them in the pre-dawn blackness, unaware of their existence, the lights of Lone Pine had seemed to magically appear, only to inexplicably vanish into the night a few steps later.
The temperature slowly rose and the trail took us finally out of the shadows of ridges and peaks and into the sunlight. The way disappeared amidst the snow and rocks and we headed cross-country toward the guitar-shaped lake we had slept near the previous night. A large mass of ice nearly covered its surface. We collapsed at the water's edge and ate breakfast as marmots shuffled amongst the surrounding rocks. Our energy regained, we moved on to the junction with the PCT and once again made our way north. At a creek crossing I encountered an older man with a bushy, white moustache. "Hello!" I called out cheerfully. He mumbled something incomprehensible without so much as glancing my way and Hockey took to calling him Mr. Happy from then on. I watched as he took off his hiking shoes to cross the creek. At the next crossing he stood staring down at the water in silence, contemplating his next move. He took a few steps into the water, stopped, and simply stared down at his feet. We passed by and he never even looked up.
We found our way onto the wide open expanse of Bighorn Plateau and gazed out at the horizon. The trail was a faint, worn line etched across stone and loose rock, at times tracing whimsical curves over the plateau's surface. The trees were stout and dwarfed and all leaning at the same angle from many a winter spent on that harshly exposed and windswept highland. I hiked in elation and full of energy despite only four hours of sleep and an ascent of Whitney. We dropped down into a beautiful river valley and passed by numerous idyllic camp sites. Forester Pass came into view off in the distance. A true icon of the trail. The highest point along the entire PCT.
We passed over a snowfield, then another and another and so on. Our pace slowed as we postholed in the snow, which had softened in the afternoon sun. The wind picked up and we gradually gained elevation. The sun was nearly gone behind the mountains and we found ourselves in what seemed like tundra - frozen and barren. The campsites shown on our map lay ahead, buried deep in snow. We filled up on water knowing that everything ahead would be completely frozen. We simply pushed on, both of us in bad moods and full of regret for passing by so many beautiful campsites in the valley behind us. We found Halfmile camped at the edge of the immense snowfield directly below Forester Pass. We set about pitching our tarps on whatever flat spot we could find as the wind did its best to disrupt our every attempt. I set my tarp low to the rocky ground and it hung limply, rippling and flapping with each gust. It was nearly impossible to get stakes into the frozen ground and I simply piled rocks atop each anchor point. In a phenomenally bad mood, all I could do was erect my shelter, climb inside and seal myself off from the elements. I could not cook inside my tent and simply ate crackers, granola bars and chocolate, desperately trying to thaw my wet and frozen feet. I put on all my layers, slid into the cocoon of my sleeping bag and lay there upon the uneven ground, falling asleep with light still in the sky above.